LIFE IMITATES ART: Considering The Selfie

“My very first selfie was taken in 1984. I put my mom’s clip-on earrings on Khloé and found a disposable camera and took a picture to capture this memory.”

Kim Kardashian, Selfish

When Kim Kardashian released Selfish last year, it seemed the world mocked the project. Labelled as an “enchanting document” of the reality star’s life, critics panned the collection of selfies. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones called it “a nail in the coffin for artistic photography”; but how far removed is the ‘selfie’ from the centuries-old, widely recognised art form of the ‘self portrait’?


When ‘selfie’ was titled the Oxford Dictionaries ‘Word of the Year’ in 2013, many considered Kardashian integral to its rising prominence in society. It is the norm now to document ones life through the selfie – and, yes, this means getting the best angle, lighting, shadows etc. Yet, when I read the OED’s definition of such as a “photographic self portrait”, I was sceptical.


Following his death in January this year, David Bowie’s acrylic and computer collage DHEAD was listed for auction. Originally donated to a charity exhibition in 1998, the piece was expected to sell around the £5,000 mark. To much surprise, the winning bidder took home the work at a cost of £22,500 – more than 4x the estimated sale price. While Bowie’s passing undoubtedly contributed to the increased interest in his rare artwork, how does this example fare alongside Kim K’s selfies?


Stylistically, Bowie’s painting pays homage to 1930s German expressionism – think Grosz, Schmidt-Rottluff etc. In truth, the piece is so far removed from looking like its creator that, when I presented it to a group of friends, none of them clocked that it was Bowie. Some may say, though, that therein lies its artistic appeal. In his review of Selfish, however, Jones refers to the photograph as something taken “in order to know things” – a documentation of sorts. This may be considered the key difference between the ‘selfie’ and the ‘self portrait’.


One artist who has been combining the two for over 40 years is Fleetwood Mac front woman Stevie Nicks. Starting in 1975, while those around her slept, Nicks would shoot her photographs herself, with a Polaroid camera on a tripod, and a button on a chord. She would firstly stage the image with a mirror (to ensure all aspects were perfect), before cementing the image on film. Such artistry seems distant to Kardashian’s selfies – while she focuses solely on her person, the surroundings a matter of chance, Nicks would dress herself and her backdrop in accordance with one another. Many years later, in 2014, these images were unearthed and used as the artwork for Nicks’ eighth album 24 Karat Gold, and exhibited under the same title in New York, LA and Miami, where canvas reprints of each were sold for up to $10,000 apiece.


There is a fine line between what is ‘art’ and what isn’t. Within Kim’s book itself, some images are clearly more staged and planned than others. Perhaps what is key, then, is the need to distinguish between what is ‘art’ and what is ‘documentation’. Within months, Selfish had sold in excess of 100,000 copies, proving its commerciality. But, should the selfie be considered a reflection on the progression of art photography? Personally, I think not.

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